Ijeoma Oluo, a Black female journalist, was on a road trip with her family when they stopped in at a Cracker Barrel for a meal. Cracker Barrel, a diner and famed gift shop with a grandma’s cabin aesthetic, is a popular chain restaurant in the Midwest and the South. Oluo tweeted a joke to her 76,000 followers: “At a Cracker Barrel 4 the 1st time. Looking at the sea of white folk in cowboy hats & wondering ‘will they let my black ass walk out of here?’” Oluo explained in a blog post that this was her way of “[making] light of my nervousness of being surrounded by white people in an establishment that not too long ago had to pay millions of dollars for racially discriminatory practices, in a small town in a red state.” However, her tweet was picked up by alt-right website Twitchy, and conservative white Americans lost their damn minds.
These same people would be surprised to hear that Black travelers, like me, saw Oluo’s tweet as a truthful observation about traveling in some parts of America.
The incident would become known as Cracker Barrel Gate, as it unlocked a deep-seated rage from the fans of the restaurant and other people who simply wanted to condemn Oluo for her observation. These people, in their rush to some very hate-filled judgments—which included death threats, rape threats, racial slurs, and more—failed to recognize the underlying truth screaming out from this Black woman’s tweet: that there are still spaces in America where Black travelers, especially women, do not feel safe.
I can attest to this myself.
Several years ago, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, when I was a young married college student on a movie date night with my husband, we went to a Cracker Barrel. My husband, who is white, had eaten at the restaurant before. This was my first time.
These people, in their rush to some very hate-filled judgments—which included death threats, rape threats, racial slurs, and more—failed to recognize the underlying truth screaming out from this Black woman’s tweet: that there are still spaces in America where Black travelers, especially women, do not feel safe.
Upon entering the restaurant, I could feel, and see, that all eyes were on us. We went up to ask for a table, and the clerk suggested a look around the gift shop while they were getting a table ready. The “down-home” country decor was very overdone, but I did find some great cast-iron skillets. As soon as I picked one up, the clerk was on us. He never asked a question, just hovered as we moved about the small room crammed with knickknacks and kitchenware. This was not my first time being followed by a clerk, but combined with the overt stares I was getting from servers waiting on tables, I felt uneasy.
My husband ultimately turned around and told the clerk that we were “Fine, thank you,” and “just browsing.” Being outed sent the man back to the register, where he still made sure to keep an eye on what we were doing.
Our table was made ready and we were seated. Once again, I could feel the stares. I looked up to see an elderly white woman meeting my glance with an unsettling stare. My flight instinct was kicking in, but I stayed.
The trappings of the “Old South” combined with all the stares dredged up every Jim Crow–era narrative I ever read.
The food ended up being decent, and the staff, when not following me around the gift shop, was cordial. There was nothing specific about the restaurant itself that made me feel so unwelcomed in the place. It was the excessive country decor coupled with a woman staring at me as she ate her mac and cheese that made me too afraid to even go to the bathroom alone. The trappings of the “Old South” combined with all the stares dredged up every Jim Crow–era narrative I ever read. In the books, the wholesome Mayberry-esque atmosphere portrayed during the day was the same space where black bodies were brutalized at night. I ended up persuading my husband to leave not long after the food arrived. The server boxed everything up for us and even offered to call a manager if we were unhappy with something.
How was I supposed to tell the manager that the white people in the place were making me want to flee for my life?
I am not alone in how I feel about this. Even travel experts who explore the world and write about it experience stares and hostility when they stumble upon a place that isn’t quite safe for Black travelers. In Farrin Stanton’s Huffington Post piece about what she learned while traveling as a Black person, “People will stare at you” is at the top her of her list. She goes on to describe it as a “non discrete, obvious, point-and-talk-about-you-to-the-person-next-to-[them] stare at you.” She was referring to both domestic and international travel, but her description is accurate to my experience, and probably Oluo’s too.
We are only five or six decades away from the time when “sundown towns” fully enforced laws and local rules forbidding black people from entering the town limits after the sun set. The penalty for traveling through such a town was arrest, assault, and in many documented cases, death. Some towns still have these laws on the books!
New York Times travel writer Farai Chideya explains that our experiences are because “brown skin is often perceived as ‘otherness’ in parts of America.” That is a fact that cannot be erased, no matter how much it offends white readers who believe we are in a postracial society. We are only five or six decades away from the time when “sundown towns” fully enforced laws and local rules forbidding black people from entering the town limits after the sun set. The penalty for traveling through such a town was arrest, assault, and in many documented cases, death. Some towns still have these laws on the books! For many decades, Black travelers had the “Green Book,” or Negro Motorist Green Book, which was a guide to safe hotels, eateries, and other services in the South. Created in 1933 by Victor Hugo Green, the Green Book also provided information on sundown towns and other hazards to brown-skinned travelers. It was last published in 1966, but it’s something that road trippers like Oluo could have utilized for a much more comfortable dining experience.
The truth is Oluo’s observation means that America still has a lot of work to do before Black women can travel safely throughout every state. The dangerous threats she received and continues to receive simply for making a small joke about how she felt in a diner only reinforce the sentiment of her original tweet. But Black women will continue to travel the country. We will continue to write about how we feel while traversing these places that tell us we don’t belong there—and we will share these stories.